#OscarsSoMale: How the Industry Can Elevate Female Filmmakers

Issa Rae Oscarsomale

It was a horrific award season for female filmmakers. In a year where fantastic films by and about women were overlooked by both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, the media has not stopped hissing with outrage over this glaring void in representation. It has gotten to the point that if critics don´t begin to acknowledge the great work being done by women behind the camera, we may just have to take up Bette Midler´s suggestion of getting our own show called “the Osc-hers.” But as we all know, that would be a concession to the status quo, while what women want is equal treatment as men. 

What´s worse, 2019 was labeled a “banner year” for female filmmakers, one in which women-directed more of the year´s most popular movies than in any year before. In fact, in 2019 there were twice as many women-led features than ever, but for some reason, women — with an extra emphasis on women of color — were once again forgotten about. What is it about the system that holds women behind the camera back, ignoring them into oblivion? 

This snubbing might make sense if there weren´t big money being made to support women´s street credibility, but such is not the case. According to a study released by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, women directed 12 of 2019’s top 100-grossing films in 2019.  For starters, while it wasn´t an Oscar contender, Frozen II, earned about $1.2 billion in worldwide ticket sales, which is close to becoming a new box-office record for a movie directed by a woman. Jennifer Lee, who co-directed the film, actually set the record with the first Frozen film. While 12 films made by women in 2019 may not seem like a significant number, comprising just 10.6% of the total pool of directors, it’s a greater proportion than studies have noted before. In 2018, for example, only 4.5% of the year’s top films were directed by women. 

What are some of the critically acclaimed films that were also commercial successes that should have been nominated? Hustlers directed by Lorene Scafaria, about strippers who drug and rob Wall Street clients has been a commercial success, earning $105 million domestically thus far. Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas, nicknamed the black version of Bonnie & Clyde, earned $40.7 million it’s opening week, while Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, opened strongly with $29 million in its first five days of release, according to ABC News.

Then there were the indie darlings that were pushed to the sideline as well. Films that earned critical acclaim such as The Farewell directed by Lulu Wang, a semi-autobiographical family drama about Wang´s own Westernized culture clash with China. Clemency directed by Chinonye Chukwu, which received a nod in the Best Screenplay category at the Golden Globes, and explores capital punishment, starring Alfre Woodard. Harriet directed by Kasi Lemmons, the acclaimed period piece biopic about the life of Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave turned abolitionist. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood directed by Marielle Heller explores the popular children´s television host Fred Rogers´ life starring Tom Hanks. 

None of these powerful films mentioned above merited one single nomination for best film or director? I don´t get it.

At the Oscars: Angry White Men and Very Frustrated Women

When the going gets tough the brilliant crack jokes, and nobody has quite hit the nation´s nerve about this year´s testosterone-filled nominees like Saturday Night Live´s Melissa Villaseñor. Her “Weekend Update” sketch basically castrated the Oscars by calling out the Academy for only honoring films about angry white men and ignoring everybody else. What is the common thread running through all the Oscar-nominated movies, Villaseñor´s news anchor character asks us: white male rage. The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, and 1917, all nominated for awards this year. Only five women have been nominated for best director in the Oscars history. Only one took home the award in 2009: Kathryn Bigelow with The Hurt Locker. We women are hurt and angry, too, Academy. Would this help get us nominated?

For women of color filmmakers, representation is even slimmer. Only four women of color directed one of the top 100 movies in 2019. “While 2019 is a banner year for women, we will not be able to say there is true change until all women have access and opportunity to work at this level,” said Stacy L. Smith, of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study. The study´s co-author points out that the study revealed that when women of color do step behind the camera, the critical reviews of their films were more favorable than their white male, white female, or underrepresented male counterparts. “Given this finding, it is clear that the barrier to seeing more women of color directing is not due to the quality of their filmmaking but rather a biased hiring system.” 

Making Changes: Elevating the Industry and Its Female Filmmakers

A call for advocacy is fundamental in changing how talent is being judged both inside and outside of the movie studios. This way, women will be given more opportunities and the credit they deserve. 

In order to make a change, it´s clear that two things need to be done. One is how we classify the qualities of a good director; and two, changing who is in charge of reviewing films that are eventually up for competition. Changes have to be from the bottom up to be more inclusive. When the authors of the USC Annenberg study partnered with the Sundance Institute and Women in Film several years ago for a survey, they found that the majority of  industry members still lauded directors for being “muscular” and being like “General Patton.” We need to move beyond this patriarchal stereotype of what makes a good director artistically. The second area that needs improvement is the sad state of who our nation´s gatekeepers of film criticism are. A study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed that nearly 83 percent of professional critics are white and 79 percent are men. The study also found that only 21% of film reviewers are women, and 17% are people of color. And, of published film critics, a mere 4% are women of color.

If changes are to be made, it has to start by first expanding the muscle power of both women and people of color in film criticism so that we can all begin to embrace the unique qualities of what make women mind-blowing directors. Filmmaker Lulu Wang told Variety that she believes that we are slowly moving in that direction. “The box office is proving that telling stories from different perspectives is what the audience wants,” she said. “Audiences are demanding different stories from different perspectives — and that is driving part of the change.”